Monday, 14 July 2014

Tea revolution

By Joann Plocková | Prague Daily Monitor |
30 October 2009

For Aleš Juřina the memory of 17 November 1989 is associated with tea. He and some friends with whom he had formed a kind of secret tea association for tastings and discussions gathered around to listen, via Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, to the events unfolding in Prague during what was one of their regular meetings. After that day it was much easier for Juřina and fellow aficionados Jiří Šimsa and Luboš Rychvalský to realise the dream of starting their own teahouse that they'd discussed during those meetings. In June of 1993 on Wenceslas Square, they opened Dobrá čajovna, becoming one of the first such institutions in the burgeoning nationwide tea culture.

It all began with a very dirty (and, consequently, cheap) building that took about one year to clean, as well as the doubts of friends who thought the trio crazy for starting such a business in a country where the cup was empty in terms of tea tradition. Beer and coffee were the Czech Republic’s drinks of choice. And the only known tearoom ever in Prague, opened in 1911, changed over to a restaurant within a year and a half, Juřina says. However, fuelled by their desire to share their love for good tea, the three pushed on and were met with appreciation from their customers from the start.

It was within the first year that they opened their second tearoom in Pardubice. Appreciating the Prague branch, Juřina’s best friend from the tea association approached them with interest in opening this second outlet. However, along with losing co-founder Rychvalský, who decided to pursue other interests, Juřina and Šimsa decided that running the Pardubice branch from a distance wasn’t working. Unaware of the concept of a franchise, they made the decision to provide Juřina’s friend with their knowhow and let him take ownership. From this point on, the company began to open two to three tearooms per year under a franchise agreement, a success that surprised not only their doubtful friends, but also themselves. “Our initial intention was only to share our tea experience with a limited community of people," Šimsa said. "We had hopes that in Prague there would be a certain number of tea lovers who would appreciate our attempt and allow the tearoom to survive.”

Today, under the company Spolek milců čaje, there are Dobrá čajovna branches in nearly every major city in the Czech Republic. Among the 22 branches, four can be found abroad, with one each in Poland and Hungary and two locations in the United States. “Our relationship with our partners in the US started in the same way as the České Budějovice branch, as all the others: They came to us,” Juřina said. “At this point, we have not done any advertising.” However, despite being approached by several people each year who are interested in opening their own Dobrá čajovna, Juřina and Šimsa don’t allow just anyone to take on their brand name. “They should have their head in the heavens, but their feet on the ground” Jurina said.

A church for atheists
Besides the spread of tea through Dobrá čajovna, the early 1990’s saw the opening of a host of other tearooms throughout the country. Authors Soňa, Zdeněk and Michal of the Thoma family, refer to the phenomenon in their book Příběh čaje (The Story of Tea) as the “great Czech tea boom”. According to experts such as them, it was the newfound exposure to new ways, new lifestyles, new philosophies and other things inaccessible before 1989 that played a large role in Czechs' taking to tearooms. “After the Velvet Revolution, a lot of new things came here. And, of course, a lot of different lifestyles from the whole world. And I think it was like a big bang for the Czech people, because, for a lot of them, it was the very first time they could be introduced to something new, something different,” said Květa Bílková, a Prague-based tea master. “For many decades, people knew only one lifestyle here. But, then, they were amazed by so many innovations and specialties, such as oriental tea culture. Of course tea culture has 'something special' that we didn't know before.”

Hubert Hátle, a tea master who has worked with Dobrá čajovna for 15 years, shares this idea. “Everybody was looking for their own new way of life and world opinion after the awful communist period," he said. "The tearoom was a place for everything new, and oriental and African philosophies were very interesting for a new democracy. Modern tearooms were great culture and exotic centres with different thinking and fun.”

Juřina has another theory: “The tearoom is something between a church and a pub,” he said. “Czechs are the most atheistic in Europe … So, maybe, in the tearoom they have some feeling of spirituality. And, second, Czech people like to meet friends in pubs, but maybe, after some time, they have too much alcohol, it’s too loud and too smoky. So this is an alternative for them.”

A growing appreciation for quality
After Dobrá čajovna set the stage, it was followed by Růžová čajovna, U Zeleného čaje, Long life and Amana. Today, with more than 350 of them, the Czech Republic boasts the largest concentration of tearooms in the world. People have slowly developed a deeper appreciation for the taste and smells of the beverage, combining their visits to tearooms with buying their own blends for home. “Before 1990 there were only a few quality looseleaf teas on offer," said Martin Škranc, commercial director of Růžová čajovna. "As soon as that offer expanded, people started to find the best tea for them.”

Dobrá čajovna is serious about getting truly good tea. After using suppliers from Hamburg and London for the first two years, the partners quickly realized that, to provide the highest quality tea, they had to “get to the roots”, as Juřina puts it. So in 1995 they took their first trip abroad to India to meet directly with the producers of their teas. Since then they take a trip every year to at least one of the countries from which they buy fresh tea – including China, Turkey, Japan and others. There, they meet with the producers directly in the gardens and learn from the locals how to properly prepare the tea, which dishes to use (which they purchase and bring back with them) and design aspects that they incorporate into their shops.

One mistake they made in terms of design with the first tearoom, according to Juřina, was not having an open kitchen. Because they learned that it is necessary for the customers to see the preparation, all of the tearooms that followed the first incorporate this detail. Part of the design is also smell and sound. They use only one kind of incense, a natural and soft-smelling variety, which they import from China, so as not to conflict with the smell of the tea. Their choice in music speaks to their general attitude of openness.

“A mistake of a lot of tearooms is that they use one CD all the time, so people are afraid to smile, because they think they are in a Buddhist monastery," Juřina said. “We are careful not to connect our tearooms to one religion. We want to be very open-minded, open to all religions.”

“Dobrá čajovna is a small cultural Babylon for people of every race, nation and religion," Hátle added.

Currently preparing to launch a branch in Sofia, Bulgaria, as well as outlets in Liberec and Ústí nad Labem, Juřina knows that along with his brand's success, it does have competition. Although he doesn’t state the names of the companies he sees as his two main rivals, he does express his appreciation for what he views as a very correct relationship with them. “We are not friends. We are not in love. I hope we don’t ever have troubles,” Juřina said. “It is something to do with tea. Tea makes people more open-minded, even in business.”

 

On the Inside
Tea isn’t just a beverage: It’s also an experience. Along with the beautiful tableware from which it is poured and drunk and the very specific and often ceremonial preparation and service procedures with which it is offered, the environment in which it is sipped is of great importance to its appreciation.
Taking this notion into account, many of the tearooms found in the Czech Republic offer their customers cosy and unusual interiors in which to sit back, sip and surrender to the way of tea. Although many incorporate similar elements borrowed from tearoom traditions around the world, each one offers its own look and feel through interesting details and the space itself. Part of the pleasure of the experience is seeing what each one has to offer and feeling how easy it is to slip inside the world of tea and forget that there’s a whole other one outside the tearoom’s walls.

Amana
One of the first original tearooms to come on the scene, Prague’s Amana čajovna is characterized by its laidback vibe. Dominated by wood floors and a hodgepodge of furniture (including wood and wicker chairs, small but sturdy wood tables and a few glassed topped ones), Amana’s unique features include a large structure: Described accurately by one of the employees as looking like a beehive, and behind which they prepare the tea, a wood-burning fireplace is built into the corner of the walls in the teahouse’s back room. (Don’t miss it; I didn’t discover this room until after several visits). An aquarium is built into the wall dividing the first and second rooms, and coloured tiles are scattered throughout. Like most of the tearooms I’ve visited, Amana offers traditional floor seating on a platform in the back room and sells teas and ceramics, which line the walls behind a wooden counter found upon entry. Tucked just below street level, Amana is an easy place to tuck yourself into for several hours.

Bílý jeřáb
Clean design is how Bílý jeřáb owner Milan Dřímal describes his tearoom’s interior. His choice was a response to his dissatisfaction with the city’s dark hookah-filled joints catering to students. “I want to show the high culture of tea, “ said Dřímal.
Housed at basement level, Bílý jeřáb’s interest lies in the unique curves and lines of its ceiling, small alcoves in the walls housing plants and windows which emit light from the outside, which is not directly behind the window (there is actually a wall there), but one floor above.
The walls are white and sparsely decorated with a few prints with Asian motifs. Tucked away into one corner of the main room is a platform with a low-level squared coffee table surrounded by neatly arranged red cushions for seating. A special feature of Bílý jeřáb is a small, narrow room where guests can sit on the hardwood floor atop the same red cushions. A Buddhist statue resting atop a floating wood shelf on the back wall, combined with the rooms feeling of privacy gives it the feeling of a meditation room. Upstairs is the Bílý jeřáb teashop. In 2008 it was named shop of the year in the design category by Regal magazine.

Čajovna ve věži
Čajovna ve věži is certainly not having a problem elevating tea to the heights it is worthy of. This tearoom's most intriguing characteristic is being housed in the upper level of a tower (věži means tower). Once up the stairs and inside, tearoom, which feels like a dream I had as a kid and keep trying to get back, continues. The first room, after the entrance, where you must remove your shoes, is not so special (a few tables and an antique couch), but look up and there is a loft where you can sit lotus-style on a floor covered with cushions. Look to the left, and there is a large room with platform seating that wraps the length of the far wall. There is additional seating in the house’s second loft. The vibe is candlelit and dark because the curtains on the windows are often closed. But, if it’s warm enough and you are in need of light, head out onto the balcony one floor above to sip your tea with a view.